John Coates: The Man Who Built the Snowman

John Coates: The Man Who Built the Snowman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861966820
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 10/26/2011
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Marie Beardmore is a former media journalist based in Paris, where she writes for TV and is working on her own projects, including the adult animation Umbilical Man and a graphic novel,Rose.

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John Coates: The Man Who Built The Snowman

A biography of the producer of The Snowman, Yellow Submarine and many other films ...

By Marie Beardmore

John Libbey Publishing

Copyright © 2012 John Libbey Publishing Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86196-903-6


Early Years

John Piesse Coates was born on 7 November 1927, between the wars. A good year for champagne! It was also a seminal year for communication, and heralded some big changes in media and technology. It was the year of the first ever Oscar, the first transatlantic phone call – New York City to London – and the year of the Jazz Singer, widely regarded as the first talking picture, which opened to rave reviews. That movie effectively killed the silent movie era; ironic considering that the wordless 'Snowman' was to make John more famous than any of his other films. How he made the transition from schoolboy to eventual celebrated producer has been a fabulous odyssey and the subject of this book.

John was fortunate enough to be born into wealth. His mother was the money because she was a Rank, the family that made its initial fortune from flour milling and later, Rank Films. As a young boy, John admired his entrepreneurial Uncle Jimmy, by all accounts an illustrious character. He was a millionaire even back then and John remembers him fondly as a man who enjoyed racing, had plenty of girlfriends and liked a drink. The impassioned Uncle Jimmy was a fun influence on his young nephew, who has forever kept a love of horses, pretty women and the odd tipple, and not necessarily in that order. John's Uncle Arthur, on the other hand, was a strict Methodist and teetotal, a way of life that proved an anathema to John.

In contrast to his well-heeled mother, John's father, Major Coates, came from more humble stock. He was a chartered surveyor by profession but had been a flyer during WWI, which had a profound influence on the young John who developed a life-long love of all things military. The Major's army career ended abruptly when he was shot down in France by one of the much-feared Richthofen Circus, perhaps even by the infamous Red Baron himself. His plane tumbled into a shell hole and the wings stuck, cushioning his fall and saving his life, though he had a nasty gun shot wound on his leg afterwards.

One of four siblings, John was closer in age to his sister Anne (the Oscar winning film editor Anne V. Coates) than his older brothers, Michael and David. John and Anne shared a love of horses with their mother who kept show ponies and encouraged them to take part in competitions, in which they excelled. There were two major events: The International was held indoor at Olympia and Richmond Royal horse show was in the open air. Anne won the title champion rider of England (1938) and John claimed the crown the following year, 1939, age 12.

Anne was a rebel; she ran away from school at a young age and was always in trouble, which John loved because it kept the parental heat off him. David joined the family flour milling business, where the tradition was to work your way up from the factory floor, grafting, humping sacks of flour around. John was having none of that, though it was to be many years before he followed his sister andjoined the other family firm, Rank Films.

As a youngster, John lived in a bubble. He had a privileged life and thought having a houseful of servants and private grounds to run around in was the norm. His mother, better known affectionately in the family as "Pussyfoot" based on a 'wireless' character at the time, had a no-nonsense Yorkshire upbringing and ran the household and an army of staff with military efficiency. They lacked a butler, but the family seemed to have everything else: cook, maids and nannies, even an under nanny, a groom, a stable boy, a gardener and an under gardener, a chauffer and a mechanic. Over the years, "Pussy" managed all the domestic problems of her eccentric children as well as those of her many staff.

John's nanny, Evelyn, played a big part in his life. He was fond of his mum and dad, but it was Eve, as she was known, who looked after him in the years up to boarding school and to whom he was very attached. She worked on for his mother for many years and finally married Harris, the Head Groom. They had two daughters who went on to start up a very successful equestrian centre of their own.

While John was still in short trousers, the family moved to the country to Crutchfield Farm, a small Elizabethan manor house near Gatwick. Here, he acquired his love of rural life and grew from boy to young man. The Coates had two farms, both dairy and several hundred acres between them, and had moved into the country "to be seen to be" according to John. The family never farmed them, of course, tenant farmers did that, but they were a godsend during the war years, providing lots of milk, chickens' eggs and guinea fowl.

He had a few years of bucolic peace before Germany had the affront to invade Poland, provoking the Second World War on September 1st 1939. Soon afterwards, John was given a four ten shot gun, complete with very long barrel and known as a poachers' gun. He had to keep the larder full of game, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, and often went out hunting with his dogs, an ill assorted team of Springer spaniel, a Dalmatian, hopeless until he trained it, and a Lurcher that Anne bought from gypsies. In the end, they became three intrepid hunting dogs and John spent many happy days in the fields catching his quarry – even the wealthy had to cope with rationing ...

His family had to get used to the inconvenience of war. Although wealth kept things ticking along more normally than for people of moderate means, reality hit home when, one inevitable day, the air raid siren went off. In true blitz spirit and showing her Yorkshire mettle, John recalls his mum protesting: "I am not building an air raid shelter. If they're going to bomb me, they'll bomb me in my bed!" And that's almost what happened; a couple of months later, towards the end of the Battle of Britain, a stick of eight bombs fell alongside the family pile. It was quite a small blast, but it killed John's favourite pony and was strong enough to lift the door off its hinges and almost on to him.

As hostilities intensified and his siblings reached the age of conscription, each wanted to do their bit for king and country. On the day war broke out, John's older brother Michael went under the knife to get his rugby-bent nose straightened so he could pass the medical to be a fighter pilot. He never became a flier, but did enlist as an officer in the infantry, while David joined the RAF. John's parents had separated by then, so he felt quite alone when his brothers enlisted, and even more so when, later, Anne also left home to become a nurse. Desperately lonely and abandoned, a young man now and much wrapped up in things military, he had no choice but to find ways to amuse himself at home.

John lost his virginity in the summer of 1944. "I had to exercise my horse, and in the course of doing so I met a lady who joined me on rides. Her name was Susan and she was fairly grown up to me, probably 25. On one occasion, on a warm June day she said, 'why don't we tie the horses up?' And to my astonishment, she held my hand, and one thing led to another ... The physical contact with the opposite sex was something I'd never experienced before, and she took charge. We both felt guilty in a funny sort of way, but we did meet a few times after. The problem was she had a husband fighting away in Italy at the time, but at least I'd learnt what it was all about and felt experienced when I went back to school next term."

School days

John's schooling was largely during the war. Prep school didn't shape him particularly but public school did. He was a pupil at the impressively progressive Stowe, once the home of the former Dukes of Buckingham; an idyllic place with grounds designed by 'Capability' Brown and beautiful buildings graced by fantastic woods, lakes and amazing temples. Unfortunately, the last Duke of Buckingham had been a little barmy; he went bankrupt and blew himself-up, ironically in the Temple of Friendship, still in ruins to this day. The Duke had a taste for questionable large-scale projects: the third artificial lake had a porous soil and would not hold water, so he decided to line the whole thing with copper, a bold endeavor resulting in his financial ruin. There were also plans for building a straight road to his namesake Buckingham Palace; it goes into Buckingham town and is accurately aimed at Buckingham Palace, but never got down that far.

Stowe proffered an educational revolution for the wealthy and was far removed from the stuffier Eton and Harrow. A hundred parents fed up with the rigmarole of the old public school system decided to create something modern and started Stowe, which gave John his love of shape and form. "We were surrounded by beauty and I don't care what anyone says, unless you're a Philistine it brushes off. Neoclassic bridges across the lake and the Temples of Friendship and the main centerpiece and colonnades with marvelous scenes, all influenced me a lot and made me realise something about aesthetics." His comments would have pleased Stowe's founder J.F. Roxburgh, whom history regards as the greatest public school head of the twentieth century. His vision was: "every pupil who goes out from Stowe will know beauty when he sees it, all the rest of his life".

Stowe's curriculum reflected its liberal ways; the place was more involved in the arts, music and sports than other schools of its ilk. After passing their school certificate, pupils were allowed to choose the games they wanted to play. Being a strong swimmer, John was a natural for water polo, but hated tennis and cricket, both popular 'summer' sports. He also played 'rugger' and made a good scrum half, playing in the second team, and acting as a reserve for the first. John's favourite subject was geography, mostly because he had a great teacher full of interesting ideas. He had a plan to irrigate the Sahara Desert by bulldozing a canal, 20 miles wide, from the Gulf of Libya in the Mediterranean all the way to West Africa; this would let the sea flow through and make it rain, transforming the barren desert to fertile ground in no time at all.

Towards the end of his school days, John got a sharp reminder of the war raging around him. He was studying for his higher certificate when the Germans came. "I was sitting in a little window as dawn came up. This black plane came circling down quite low and I was just looking at it. As it turned, you could see there was a German cross on it. It was a Dornier bomber. That second, the bomb doors opened and the bombs fell out, but didn't hit the school. They bombed the rugby fields and the next one fell on the south run. They were only tiny bombs in the end." John still wonders if they knew they were bombing a school.

Stowe was not as strict as the older public schools, but not as degenerate as William Golding's Lord of the Flies either. Pupils carried around a pocket-sized red book with the school rules inside. Showing how times have changed, smoking was explained as a danger fire-wise and nothing to do with health. John, never goody two shoes, was caught smoking and got whacked by the headmaster – six of the best! Although bright, he was not extremely academic. He liked fighting and organised the inter-dormitory battles. Somebody once asked him what he would have done if he had not been a film producer. "I think I'd make a pretty-good general", he answered.


Army Years

John left the hallowed walls of Stowe in 1945; the war with Germany was over, but England and Japan were locked into a bloody and protracted battle, predicted to last as long as the German War had, at least four or five years. Before war interrupted, he was all set for Cambridge, but faced with the option of getting his degree or joining-up, John decided on the latter and signed up for three years in the armed-forces.

He coveted a place in the 11th Hussars elite cavalry regiment, once part of the brave Charge of the Light Brigade, but its commissioned ranks were limited to career soldiers not 'part-timers' like him. Usually, he would have been refused entry into the squad, but 'Pussy' came to the rescue: she knew the colonel, who pulled some strings for her son. John joined the 11th Hussars.

The army proved a life-changing experience for the young Coates, used to mingling in affluent society rather than with 'ordinary' folk. Army life started with six weeks basic training at Winchester Barracks. Like other new recruits, John, with brand-new kitbag, was nervous that first day and night. Next morning, he was kitted-out with standard issue battle dress and a rifle, without ammunition – that was allocated on the rifle range.

The tremendous sense of duty and seriousness of war prevailed heavily on him, like it did all the young men. None knew who would die for king and country, and as he looked around the barracks, a world away from Stowe aesthetics, he must have wondered if he would die young. After succumbing to initial feelings of isolation and loneliness, he managed to push maudlin thoughts aside. Showing flashes of the people skills that would make him such an adept producer, he adapted well to his new life, taking up fags and beer in the pub, like a regular 'bloke', though he had sneaked the odd cigarette at Stowe.

Training was rigorous and standard: bayonets, march up and down, boot polishing, be disciplined and do whatever you were told. The independent spirited young men who went in came out homogenous, identical of purpose, sense of self squashed. After all, on the battlefield, maverick thinking got you killed. John remembers having a go on the rifle range, but only after switching the helmet and face of the target from German to Japanese. Many years later, after completing When The Wind Blows, the anti-nuclear war film directed by Jimmy Murakami, he told that story on Japanese television. "The Japanese news people understood what I was saying: all is well that ends well or something like that."

After the six weeks training, recruits went to their next section – tanks for John. He was sent to the 57th training regiment, Catterick, Yorkshire, where it was so cold the bedsteads had frost on them. He shared an up and down bunk with a Geordie; they became good friends and learnt to understand each other "down the pub". Nine months later, he was selected for officer cadet training. By now he had learnt just about everything there was to know about a tank and could operate one with some panache.

Officer cadet training

Office training was another six weeks again of spit and polish, this time at the barracks in Aldershot; the guy in charge of the young cadets, Sergeant Major Brittain, had a voice so fierce he could march men a mile away. "He would stand right behind you and would shout in a high-pitched voice: "Am I hurting you!" And you'd say, "No sir!" And he'd say: "Well I should be because I'm standing on your hair – get it cut!"

The Sergeant Major had to defer to the young cadets because they were above him in rank and John "still recalls the cynicism in his sir". After this training period, it was off to Battle Camp in North Wales, where it rained, constantly. "It was August. The men were a little optimistic that the weather might not be that bad", says John.

Battle Camp was meant to prepare the cadets for war (though hostilities with Japan had by now ceased, following the US nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, August 1945) so it was an intense period to build strength, stamina and to bring out their fighting spirit. John and his fellow cadets arrived at Bangor station in the pouring rain, where they were split into two companies. Each company climbed into a truck, tied down at the back so the men couldn't see outside. Like that, they journeyed up into the mountains. "It rained all the way, and the space of ground where we could lay out tents was sodden. But the tent was totally pointless because we were soaking wet anyway."

That first evening, the cadets were sent out in two men patrols "to make contact with the other side because they were the enemy". If they hadn't made "contact" within two hours, they were supposed to return to base. John remembers: "Me and another bloke headed off in pitch darkness in the middle of the mountains of North Wales, not knowing what the hell we were doing. We hadn't made contact with the 'enemy' so set off to get back to base. On the return journey, the guy I was with said it was my turn to go up over the next wall to try and find their camp. I remember stopping at the top and throwing a big rock ... There was silence and silence, then way down a final muffled splash. If I had gone over the wall, I would have been killed or maimed for life."


Excerpted from John Coates: The Man Who Built The Snowman by Marie Beardmore. Copyright © 2012 John Libbey Publishing Ltd. Excerpted by permission of John Libbey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Early Years
2. Army Years
3. Early Days at Rank, Far East, Asia
4. Rank: Madrid
5. How it All Began: Rediffusion and ATV
6. From Film to Television to the start of TVC
7. TVC and the Beatles
8. Yellow Submarine
9. Endings and Beginnings
10. Post George: a New Era
11. The Snowman
12. Post Snowman
13. When the Wind Blows
14. Life Matters: Becoming a Granpa and Holiday in Kenya
15. Granpa
16. Seychelles
17. Father Christmas
18. Recession
19. Beatrix Potter
20. Cartoon Forum and dalliances
21. Three more half hour specials
22. Wind in the Willows, Willows in Winter
23. Famous Fred
24. The Bear
25. Another Exotic holiday. Bali
26. John Winds up TVC
27. Oi Get off Our Train: TVC and Varga
28. John Brothers
29. Retirement at the Lake St. Croix
30. Ethel and Earnest

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